Symbolism of the Number Forty in Scripture
In researching for this article, I found discrepancies in regard to how many times the number forty is used in Scripture. One reference said 146 times while another said 159 and, yet, another said 98. I counted 97.
Irrespective of which number is correct, the fact remains that the number is used many times over and has significant meaning.
The most important belief is that many scholars understand it to be the number representing trial, testing or judgment.
Examples of the Number Forty in Relationship to Trials
Let’s look at some examples:
The great flood that destroyed all living things on the earth lasted forty days and forty nights.
Moses, Elijah, and Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights.
When Israel refused to enter the Promised Land, God sent them into the wilderness for forty years.
To test and humble the Israelites, they were given manna in the desert for forty years.
A person being scourged could not receive more than forty lashes.
God gave Nineveh forty days to repent or be overthrown.
Elijah walked forty days and forty nights to reach the Horeb mount.
These are just some Old Testament examples but there are others.
The Number Forty in the New Testament
The number forty, in the New Testament, is not always representing trials. Here are a few examples:
After being baptized by Saint John the Baptist, Jesus went into the desert for forty days.
Jesus was presented to the Temple of Jerusalem forty days after His birth.
The body of Jesus remained in the sepulcher for forty hours.
There were forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension of Our Lord
The Forty Day Season of Lent
Here we come upon the number forty representing something beautiful; the forty days of Lent. This is a time for self-cleansing, purging and detaching by fasting, prayer and almsgiving. During Lent, we are encouraged to examine our consciences, spend time in self-reflection and humbly assess our relationship with Our Lord. It is an opportunity to come through the desert anew.
Saint Augustine believed that the number forty expresses perfection. He wrote, “because the Law was given in ten commandments, then it is through the whole world that the Law has been preached, and the whole world is composed of four parts, Orient and Occident, South and North; therefore, by multiplying ten by four, we obtain forty. Or well, it is by the four books of the Gospel that the Law is accomplished.”
Lenten Reflections for these Forty Days
With hope that they may be additional inspiration in deepening your Lenten prayer, I offer quotes by some of our great saints on Lent. May your inner peace increase as you reflect upon them.
“Unless there is a Good Friday in your life, there can be no Easter Sunday.”
~Venerable Fulton Sheen~
“The Lord measures out perfection neither by the multitude nor the magnitude of our deeds, but by the manner in which we perform them.”
~Saint John of the Cross~
“Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity.”
~Saint Thomas Aquinas~
“Lent is a time of going very deeply into ourselves… What is it that stands between us and God? Between us and our brothers and sisters? Between us and life, the life of the Spirit? Whatever it is, let us relentlessly tear it out, without a moment’s hesitation.”
“Show me your hands. Do they have scars from giving? Show me your feet. Are they wounded in service? Show me your heart. Have you left a place for divine love?”
~Venerable Fulton Sheen~
“Nothing, how little so ever it be, if it is suffered for God’s sake, can pass without merit in the sight of God.”
~Thomas a Kempis~
“Give something, however small, to the one in need. For it is not small to one who has nothing. Neither is it small to God if we have given what we could.”
~Saint Gregory Nazianzen~
“There are ways of being crucified that do not involve rough wood or heavy nails, but a love beyond our capacity to love, which means a love that has been given to us by God…”